Last week the British science journal Nature reported the results of an online reader poll that sought to measure the number of scientists who used “cognitive enhancing drug” and readers’ attitude to the drugs themselves. The poll, which was supposed to be part of an April Fools’ feature, revealed some unexpected results. Twenty percent of the 1427 responders (most of them Americans) said they used cognitive enhancing drugs for “non-medical purposes.” Of course, an online poll hardly constitutes a reliable scientific study. Nonetheless, we’re not talking about Mad magazine or The Onion here.
Ritalin was by far the most popular drug of choice (at 60% reported use). Responders said they turned to the drug mostly for extra concentration on tasks. The next most commonly used drug (at 50% use) was Provigil, which promotes wakefulness and is commonly prescribed for narcolepsy. Coming in third were beta-blockers (at 15% use), which are prescribed for high blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmia but were used in these cases for anti-anxiety effects.
The kicker: of the 20% who admitted taking the drugs, 60% reported that they used them daily or weekly. (Now there’s a Faustian pact if we ever heard one.) And get this: over 30% of this group said they would consider giving the drugs to their children if other kids were using them!
Our first response? Cognitive enhancing, our a—s! We can just hear Grandma Hazel knocking each of them upside the head yelling “Have you lost your mind, you fool? You don’t have a brain to your name!”
On top of all of this, a large majority of all responders (70%) reported a willingness to deal with minor side effects in exchange for the opportunity to “boost…brain power.” An even greater majority (80%) said they felt “healthy humans” should be allowed to take these drugs to boost cognitive function and work performance. Over half opposed any restriction on their use!
All this from scientists (O.K., why do we expect more from them??), no less. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan Health System is reporting that more high school and college students are turning to pill popping of the same sort for exams and other crunch times. Well, with all the great examples out there…. Another kicker: some medical practitioners, apparently, don’t even care.
It doesn’t seem to be causing too much trouble since most [students] use the drugs not to get high but to function better,” Brian Doyle, a clinical psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical Centre, told a US newspaper last month. “When exams are over, they go back to normal and stop abusing the drugs.
Where do we possibly begin with this? Has the world gone insane? Let’s just say many of us needed some serious “cool down” time after hashing this one out at the cooler. One person opted for the head-in-the-freezer treatment. The Fuming Fuji got the better of all of us.
And doesn’t this all sound familiar? Performance enhancing. The excuses. The lack of perspective. The disregard for basic health principles. The blind eye to risk of side effects. It’s all in the name of healthy competition! Apparently, cognitive reality isn’t good enough either. Commentary from Nature offered up this little nugget (real kicker – and kick in the head): “Like the rise in cosmetic surgery, use of cognitive enhancers is likely to increase as bioethical and psychological concerns are overcome.” Nice. Wonder if any of these guys work in the labs that test (and punish) athletes for performance-enhancing drugs.
We just want to tell these lab coats to buck up and deal. Learn to plan ahead and prioritize. Exercise for better sleep and concentration. Take a nap, take a walk. Cut the sugar and empty carbs out of your diet. Accept that sometimes (especially if you don’t plan ahead) you’re going to have a hard time getting it all done. Hindsight (and a little perspective) shows us that a lot of things we prioritize and worry ourselves over don’t end up seeming all that important later on. Life is messy, imperfect, and it can get a whole lot worse when you find yourself addicted to Ritalin or in the hospital because those beta blockers did a number on you.
And for Pete’s sake, don’t spread the insane thinking to children and feed them dangerous and unnecessary drugs all in the name of keeping up with the Jones’s! How about teaching them some self-respect, some self-discipline, some real coping mechanisms? How about learning some yourself?
The bottom line: When is someone going to cry uncle with this crap already?? Enough with the harried, strung out overachiever bit. This isn’t some 1980’s Michael Douglas film. How about some introspection? Some soul-searching? Hey, instead of Ritalin, how about a chill pill?
Our advice: Take the night off and watch The Big Lebowski with a nice glass of wine (not that we’re supporting that kind of drug use either). Ponder the balance of your life and the importance of your health. Contemplate the law of diminishing returns and the state of a culture that can’t accept reasonable human limitations or – at very least – refuses to take the healthy, stable approach to cognitive (and physical) achievement.